When Roger Met Nessa

First theme: Digital Scanning.

I’ve been holed-up in Mississippi State University’s library recently, and getting to grips with their new digital microform readers. These wonderful analogue/digital hybrids make scanning old journals a cinch and they’re entirely free for the library patron to use. (Where the heck was this technology when I really needed it over a decade ago, when I was researching my dissertation?) As part of my ongoing research about Roger Fry, I’ve been methodically scanning hundreds of pages from old copies of the British journal The Athenaeum, where he once worked as an art critic. Fry started there in 1901 and left in 1906, when he took up the position of the Curator of Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A Newfangled Microform Reader: Pleasingly Vertical

A Newfangled Microform Reader: Pleasingly Vertical

Second theme: Squares and Triangles.

If you know just one witty quote about the Bloomsbury Group, with which Fry was affiliated, it’s probably this one: “They lived in squares, and loved in triangles.” But consider the triangle, and consider the case of Fry and Vanessa Bell, the painter. Though both were already married, albeit unhappily, they had an affair between around 1911 and 1913. So, at least on this occasion, Bloomsbury’s sexual geometry was as square as where they lived.

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Roger Fry, 1912

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Roger Fry, 1912

In her Memories of Roger Fry, Bell provides an account of her early encounters with Fry. Around 1902 or 1903, she glimpsed from afar “the Roger Frys” [i.e. Fry and his wife, Helen] at Kings College, Cambridge. (A companion identified the couple for her.) Then, a few years later, she was seated by the Frys at a dinner party. At this party, Bell recalled, “[Helen] or Roger asked me to go and see them at Hampstead…. The visit to Hampstead did not happen at once–I think Helen Fry must have been ill and perhaps they went away–various things prevented it, but at last I went.” Tragically, Helen Fry would soon be permanently institutionalized, but Vanessa and Roger’s relationship grew into a relatively short-lived romance and, then, an enduring friendship, which was only ended by Fry’s death in 1934.

Third theme: Synthesis, or when Roger (sort of ) Met Nessa.

Back at the digital microform reader, I continued trawling though the hundreds of articles Fry wrote for The Athenaeum. Eventually I came across a 1902 review which, I think, records what must have been the critic’s first meeting with Bell. I use “meeting” in the loosest sense of the word, for what Fry encountered in the gallery was a portrait, not a person. And this person-in-the-portrait was not Vanessa Bell but, as the painting’s title put it, Miss Vanessa Stephen (No. 85), for she was not yet married. At any rate, since I don’t think this meeting (or pre-meeting) has been mentioned in biographies or memoirs, I draw attention to it here. It’s a curious footnote to the existing accounts of this central Bloomsbury relationship.

Fry was reviewing the spring exhibition of the New English Art Club (or NEAC), the main alternative to the Royal Academy, and he paused to write at some length about no. 85, the portrait of Vanessa.  The portraitist, and the third point in this artistic triangle, was Charles Furse. (In 1900, Bell had served as a bridesmaid at Furse’s wedding, but nevertheless considered him a “formidable and crushing” character.) Furse’s portrait of Vanessa Stephen, Frances Spalding informs us, showed “Vanessa gazing into a mirror, in a pose reminiscent of Whistler’s Little White Girl.”

Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864

Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864

I reproduce Whistler’s work because unfortunately Furse’s painting was destroyed in the Blitz. Fry’s impressions of the portrait can be found below, in an excerpt from his 1902 review. The scan comes from the original journal (thanks again, microform reader!):

Excerpt from Fry's review of the NEAC Exhibition, The Athenaeum, 12 April 1902

Excerpt from Fry’s review of the NEAC Exhibition, The Athenaeum, 12 April 1902

“[W]e form”, Fry writes, “the idea of a person by abstracting from a number of momentary impressions and rejecting those which are not constant.” Would, one wonders, Fry have accepted Furse’s idea of Vanessa as constant with the real woman, had he known her in 1902? And was this image of Vanessa still in his memory when Fry met her at that dinner party just a few years later? Did he ever, that is, connect the portrait with the person he would later know and love? And, for her part, was Vanessa Stephen conscious of people recognizing her because of their familiarity with Furse’s prominent portrait?

A stint in the library sometimes provokes such unanswerable questions.

Roger Fry, Portrait of Vanessa Bell, 1911

Roger Fry, Portrait of Vanessa Bell, 1911